Personality is key draw to TLC reality show

When Magilla Entertainment partners Brian Flanagan, Matthew Ostrom & Laura Palumbo Johnson were pitched a show about a woman who talks to dead people, it’s fair to say they had some reservations.

“I was (thinking) ‘What do you do with the paranormal?” Ostrum says.

But the appeal of Theresa Caputo, now the star of TLC’s “Long Island Medium,” is far more than just supernatural. It’s a key reason Magilla chose to focus the show on her down-to-earth, comic personality as much as her readings.

And in an era of hit reality shows about families and denizens of New Jersey, the series’ equally big selling point is the dynamic with her husband and two wisecracking teenagers, making it play like a combination of “Real Housewives of New Jersey” and “Bewitched” — particularly when their frustrations surface over her random communications with what she calls “Spirit.”

Long Island Medium” drew an average of 1.3 million viewers over its eight half-hour episodes last fall, peaking at about 1.5 million viewers in late October. Airing Sundays at 10 p.m. after the net’s hit “Sister Wives,” “Medium” retained enough of its lead-in to consistently rank among the top 15 cable shows for the night in key female demos. It improved TLC’s 10 p.m. Sunday ratings over the prior six-week time period by as much as 67% among women 18-49, and brought double-digit jumps among all key demos, inspiring TLC to order 14 new episodes and give it the key 9 p.m. Sunday slot for its second season, which debuted March 25.

The show’s potential wasn’t initially apparent to Magilla’s principals, who reluctantly agreed to meet Caputo in late 2010 based on a short video reel and requests from Magilla’s Jonathan Partridge. The producer discovered Caputo on a tip from his former colleague at MTV’s “Total Request Live,” Courtney Mullin.

“Theresa started reading us,” Ostrum says, “and within 10 minutes, she had the three of us reduced to tears. She almost healed my relationship with my father, who I’d lost five years earlier.”

Cable channels taking pitch meetings with Caputo didn’t know what hit them. “She was like an executive assassin,” Ostrum recalls. “One said, ‘Make her stop. I can’t cry anymore.’?And is there anyone more cynical than a development exec at a network?”

But just because execs were moved didn’t mean they were willing to move forward with the idea. Magilla spent 10 months courting at least a half dozen female-centric cablers as the project stalled. “People felt paranormal was kind of done, or they weren’t going to do it anymore,” Ostrum says.

Indeed, A&E’s “Psychic Kids” had just wrapped in its third season, while an earlier wave of others like “John Edward Cross Country” and “Ghost Hunters” still dotted the dial. Amid this mix, Syfy reality series “Mary Knows Best,” about a radio psychic and her family, had lasted just four episodes.

The reel was briefly developed with funding from the Travel Channel before a change of direction at the cabler led it back to Magilla. During that time, the producers fleshed out a format of filming Caputo’s real clients, small group readings and “spontaneous readings” of strangers she encounters while running errands along with her family life. It was these elements and the popularity of family-based reality shows that ultimately sold TLC.

“Magilla was able to transform Theresa, her gift and her family into a really great sizzle reel, and we fell in love with (her) immediately,” says TLC senior director of production Wendy Douglas. “She’s very relatable, funny and entertaining, so there was no doubt in our minds about her as a person and talent.”

The cabler launched the series in September after just a few months of shooting.

How much of Caputo’s gift is as authentic as it appears on TV has been questioned, of course — and even the star can shake her head at times when considering her success.

“I still sit back sometimes and go, ‘Am I really a medium?’ laughs Caputo, who comes across as a vivacious, normal suburban mom.

Caputo says she knows only the first names and phone numbers of the people she reads. Show guests are chosen by producers from her nearly three-year waiting list and select emails to the show’s website.

Caputo has received requests to do bigger events, but she demurs.

“I don’t want to do that,” she says. “I know how many people I can touch in two hours. It’s not about the money; if it was, I would be charging a lot more than I do.”

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